President Joe Biden’s ordinance calling for a review of the supply chain for critical products highlights the decade-long decline in US semiconductor manufacturing capacities. Semiconductors are the logic and memory chips used in computers, phones, vehicles, and devices. The United States’ share of global semiconductor manufacturing is only 12%, down from 37% in 1990, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.
It may not seem important that 88% of the semiconductor chips used by US industries, including the automotive and defense industries, are manufactured outside of the US. However, three issues make it critical to the US as a world leader in electronics: low capability, high global demand, and limited investment.
The increasing trust of US chip manufacturers in international partners in the manufacture of the chips they have designed reflects the reduced performance of the USA. US semiconductor companies account for 47% of the global chip sales market, but only 12% are manufactured in the US. To meet expectations for ever faster and smarter electronics, innovations in chip design are required, which in turn depend on the most advanced manufacturing technologies available.
Advances in semiconductor manufacturing are based on the number of transistors, the smallest electronic component on a chip, per square millimeter. The most advanced technologies and facilities for manufacturing semiconductors, so-called fabs, are marked with 5 nanometers or millionths of a millimeter. The number relates to the process rather than a specific chip feature. In general, the smaller the nanometer rating, the larger the transistors per square millimeter, although this is a complicated picture with many variables. The highest transistor densities are around 100 million per square millimeter.
Taiwan and Samsung in South Korea are developing 3-nanometer factories, while the US does not yet have a 7-nanometer factory. Intel has announced that its 7-nanometer factory won’t be ready for production until late 2022 or early 2023. This means that the US no longer has the ability to manufacture the most advanced chips.
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High global demand
With the pandemic, demand for cell phones, laptops and others Work from home Devices and the increasing use of the internet have put pressure on factories to increase the number of chips they supply for these products. The global auto industry predicted that demand for cars would decline during the pandemic, so it reduced its orders for semiconductor chips used in vehicle safety, control, emissions and driver information systems. The auto industry has resumed production but is now facing a shortage of semiconductor chips.
Recently, eight governors called on Biden to redouble efforts to “urge wafer and semiconductor companies to expand manufacturing capacity and / or temporarily allocate a modest portion of their current production to auto-grade wafer production.” This “modest” reallocation cannot be done without creating bottlenecks elsewhere. And that doesn’t happen quickly. For example, Taiwanese semiconductor giant TSMC has reported a six-month lead time from order to delivery. The production of a chip is estimated to take up to three months.
A worker in a Chinese research laboratory holds a chip that is used in car radar systems. Liu Yucai / Visual China Group via Getty Images
Limited federal investment
The governments of Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and China invest tens of billions of dollars in their semiconductor industries every year, and it shows. These investments include not only the facilities themselves, but also the research and development and tooling development required to move to the next generation of factories. Such incentives in the US remain minimal.
TSMC plans to invest $ 25-28 billion in factories this year alone and has promised to invest $ 12 billion in a factory in Arizona. To put this in perspective, the TSMC facility in Arizona is expected to process 20,000 wafers per month, compared to 1,000,000 wafers at existing TSMC facilities in Taiwan and China.
Biden’s Executive Order on Supply Chains is an important step in determining the investments needed to improve the prospects for the U.S. semiconductor industry.
This article by Carol Handwerker, Professor of Materials Science at Purdue University, has been republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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